TERRE HAUTE —
It’s not the Rock’em Sock’em Robots – it’s waaaay better.
Today and Saturday at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, hundreds of young, aspiring engineers will be competing in a fast-moving, action-packed robotics competition that looks like a mix of basketball, disc golf and demolition derby – all with a high-tech flavor.
The competition is one of many taking place around the country this weekend sponsored by FIRST, a New Hampshire-based not-for-profit dedicated to getting young people interested in science, technology, engineering and math.
The robotics competition, whose opening ceremonies are at 8:30 this morning, are taking place until 5:45 p.m. today in the Rose-Hulman recreation center. Teams of high school students from across Indiana and from six other states are taking part.
“I couldn’t sleep last night I was so excited,” said Brooke Elston, a freshman at Huntington North High School, part of Team THRUST, one of the veteran teams at the competition.
Each team has its own robot designed and built from assorted parts – without any instructions – provided by FIRST. The robot must fire discs through narrow openings, do battle with other robots for prime court positions and even climb metal pyramids.
During the final rounds on Saturday, “you get teams chanting. You get teams yelling. It’s pretty intense,” said Nathan Bonbrake, a sophomore with Team THRUST.
Fifty teams from as far away as West Virginia, Missouri and Wisconsin are at Rose to take part this weekend. On Thursday, teams took part in practice matches and made last-minute tweaks, working feverishly in their designated “pit” areas.
“We’re having a few issues right now,” said Joey Sides, a high school junior with the Lutheran Roboteers from Lutheran High School in St. Peters, Mo. The Roboteers, whose members wear slick-looking Three Musketeers-style hats, are one of the newer teams involved in FIRST but have already chalked up some successful showings in St. Louis-area competitions.
“Saturday is going to be out of control,” said Carlotta Berry, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rose who is also in charge of the school’s robotics minor. Berry has been involved with FIRST since 2007 and was the driving force behind bringing the competition to Rose for the first time this year. FIRST teaches young people to cooperate and treat each other with respect, she said. “It’s teaching them to be professionals.”
While about a dozen teams are from central Indiana, a large number drove to Terre Haute from much farther away and are staying in local hotels. The average team size is 25, Berry said, making the economic impact of this event huge for Terre Haute.
The Terre Haute Convention and Visitors Bureau “has been awesome” promoting and laying the groundwork for the event, Berry said. “We couldn’t have done this without them.”
Many of the students interviewed Thursday said they will study engineering in college. And several said they would consider Rose-Hulman among their choices. But, for now, they are focused on delivering the best possible results for their teams this weekend.
“We took [our robot] out for a practice match and it ran just fine,” said Bryan Bonahoom, software mentor for the Kil-A-Bytes, a highly experienced team from Indianapolis. “You can win or lose a match in the first 15 seconds.”
FIRST competitions are “varsity athletics for the mind,” according to Dean Kamen, inventor, entrepreneur and FIRST founder. Sponsors this weekend include Rolls-Royce, General Electric, J.C. Penney, Allison Transmission, Advanced Technology Services, NASA and many others.
The public is welcome – at no charge – to attend the matches today and Saturday. The Rose-Hulman recreation center is on the far north side of the school’s campus west of the football field.
Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or firstname.lastname@example.org